Peach State’s Finest on Display at FIFA World Cup

The FIFA Women’s World Cup isn’t as ballyhooed as the men’s version but still the worldwide event is likely to bring fellow countrymen together. FIFA has been under hot water and investigation after ex-President Sepp Blatter was accused of bribery and attempting to fix matches in previous World Cups, but the face of corruption has recently stepped down after being re-elected on May 29.

The storyline now shifts to the actual action on the pitch and the redemption the USA seeks after falling to Japan in the 2011 World Cup Finals in penalty kicks. The United States enters as a heavy favorite among the qualifying teams along with Germany, Japan, Brazil and host Canada.

The growing amount of stars load up the experienced and deep American team. Veteran Abby Wambach heads up the scoring attack and is flanked by 25-year-old Alex Morgan. Sydney Leroux has 35 goals in 70 appearances while Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd facilitate from the middle of the field. And of course, in goal is Hope Solo, one of the most loved yet scrutinized players on the national team due to her recent off field issues.

Solo’s sullied image includes being arrested for two misdemeanor counts of assault, harassing the police, an abusive relationship with former NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens which resulted in Solo being suspended from U.S. Soccer for 30 days and private nude images being leaked. The chaos surrounding Solo could pose a distraction for the U.S. but head coach Jillian Ellis insists otherwise.

            Georgia Peaches

Two Georgia natives have stayed out of the headlines and look to contribute to this year’s team. Morgan Brian and Kelley O’Hara don’t play the prominent roles of the aforementioned players, but both have the potential to be fixtures in the lineup for years to come.

Brian, a 22-year-old midfielder from St. Simons, is the youngest player on this year’s team. She starred at Frederica Academy where she won a state title and was twice named a Parade All-American and Gatorade Georgia State Player of the Year. While in college at the University of Virginia, Brian won the Hermann Trophy twice, signifying her as the best player in the nation. She became the fifth player to ever win the award two times during a career. Since playing at Virginia, the exciting midfielder has been selected to the Houston Dash of the NWSL. She has made 29 appearances with the USA senior club and has scored four goals.

Lauren Holiday, a teammate of Brian’s on the national team told The Washington Post’s Steven Goff just how special of a player Morgan is. “Morgan was not just a college player when she came into this team. Her confidence, her sophistication on the ball, it was beyond her years,” Holiday explained.

Defender Kelley O’Hara at age 26 has also gained praise during her 60 caps with the national team and has worked her way into the rotation. O’Hara grew up in Peachtree City and played at Starr’s Mill High School. Like Morgan Brian, O’Hara also captured a state title after scoring 20 goals and adding 16 assists in 2006. She too was named Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year and continued her career at Stanford University. She also was awarded the Hermann Trophy in 2009 and finished her Cardinal career with 57 goals and 32 assists. O’Hara currently teams up with the USWNT’s active leader in appearances, Christie Rampone, on defense for Sky Blue FC.

Speed and determination has helped the former forward transition into being one of the toughest defenders on the team. O’Hara was initially cut from the 2011 World Cup roster before being added on as a reserve and has used that as fuel to get better every day. She was a part of the 2012 Olympic team that beat Japan in the gold medal match, 2-1. Kelley was one of three players to play every single minute for the United States during the tournament and was a crucial part of the squad’s success.

Keep an eye on these Georgia born and bred players. Unsung heroes can be found anywhere on the big stage and there is no reason why one of these two Georgia peaches can’t come up big with the entire world watching.

Remembering The ’14-15 Atlanta Hawks

60 Wins. Four All-Stars, including an All-Star Head Coach. A perfect 17-0 month of January and also a franchise record 19-straight wins. The franchise’s first conference finals appearance. The late-season injuries. The nightclub. The what-ifs. These are all things that Hawks fans will never forget. The franchise’s best season ever since moving to Atlanta was highlighted by many great accomplishments, but was marred by injuries and mishaps down the stretch.

To fully wrap one’s head around what the Hawks did this season, you must look at where they began. Atlanta was a plucky bunch in Coach Budenholzer’s first season a year ago, compiling a record of 38-44 without Al Horford for the majority of the season after he injured his pectoral muscle. Even with the sub-.500 record, the Hawks earned the eighth-seed in the watered down Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to do much against the experienced top-seeded Indiana Pacers, but after a 101-93 win in Game 1, Atlanta fans began to believe.

The Hawks held a 3-2 series lead with a chance to pull the upset and close out the Pacers in Game 6 at Philips Arena, but the Pacers fended off Atlanta twice and advanced to the next round. Something happened in that playoff series. The Hawks found themselves going chest-to-chest with one of the toughest teams in the league without backing down. It was the beginning of a culture change.

The Worms Turns

As the 2014-15 season approached, a healthy Al Horford would be returning to the fold. Additions of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha may have seemed insignificant, but as the season unfolded, for better and for worse, these two acquisitions loomed large in the subsequent success and failures of the Hawks. The season kicked off with rapper T.I. performing concerts pregame, at halftime and postgame, but the Hawks ended up losing 109-102 to the Toronto Raptors. A win over the Pacers and narrow losses to the Spurs and Hornets got Atlanta off to a rocky 1-3 start, which definitely would not surprise anybody in the NBA considering the team won just 38 games a year ago.

Then something happened. Atlanta won six of their next nine games and began to find their footing on the season. On Friday November 8, the Hawks beat the Pelicans 100-91. From that day until February 2, Atlanta ripped off a hellacious 33-2 record including 19-straight wins. By that time, the Hawks transformed from a 7-6 team to a 40-8 team. Times were good and the slogan “True To Atlanta” became a rallying cry for those to that supported the team. Philips Arena became the hottest ticket in town and sellouts became the norm. The team was clicking on all cylinders and Bud Ball was born with the unselfish play of the Hawks earning them the nickname of “Spurs East”.

Atlanta continued its strong play but came back down to earth after the All-Star break and recorded a humanly 17-11 record. On February 10, rookie and 15th pick in the 2014 draft Adreian Payne was traded to Minnesota for a future first round pick. The big man did not see much playing time and rumor has it had a falling out with the coaching staff. Already slim on big men, Atlanta felt it was the right move to make.

War of Attrition

Injuries began to pile up late in the season. Thabo Sefolosha was entrusted to be their top wing defender and split duties with DeMarre Carroll, but a strained right calf held him out for months. Both Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder sprained their toes and had to sit out a few games. Paul Millsap hurt his shoulder in the final week of the season and later it was Al Horford injuring his finger. And of course in the playoffs, the season ending injury to Kyle Korver and bone bruise and turf toe Carroll sustained. Injuries however are a part of the game. You can’t look to injuries as the main reason why things went south in the playoffs. The biggest blow was the early morning arrests of Pero Antic and Sefolosha outside a nightclub in New York. Pero missed a few games, but Sefolosha was done for the season after the altercation with the cops resulted in his fibula being broken.

The loss of Sefolosha piled with all the other injuries to the Hawks left the team thin in the playoffs. Atlanta’s lack of size hurt them as the Cavaliers out-rebounded them in every game. The Hawks entered the playoffs with a literal and figurative limp that they were never able to solve. Uninspiring performances against the Nets and Wizards were just enough to get by, but once they faced a Cleveland team—who also was battling injuries—Atlanta did not have enough bullets left in the chamber.

Off-Season Needs

Atlanta has a strong team-oriented core in the weak Eastern Conference, but decisions will need to be made on how to improve the team. Both DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap are unrestricted free agents. With the way Carroll was playing before injury, it seemed like the Junkyard Dog was in-line for a major pay raise. Luckily for him, he suffered just a bone bruise and not ACL damage, insuring he will get a hefty raise.

Millsap was up and down during the postseason but was Atlanta’s most reliable player during the regular season. It may be tough to re-sign both but it will be on the team’s ledger as a top priority.

The most glaring need is a big man who can rebound and defend. 7-foot-3 Walter Tavares plays overseas, but was selected by the Hawks last year. He is incredibly raw but if he could turn into what the Utah Jazz have with Rudy Gobert, coach Bud would be ecstatic. Atlanta is able to swap draft picks with the Nets after the 2012 Joe Johnson trade. They now select 15th instead of 29th. It will be imperative for them to hit on the pick after deciding Payne wasn’t the right man a year ago.

Wrapping Up A Historic Weekend

The weekend has come and gone, but it was one not soon to be forgotten—for better or for worse. The mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao headlined the weekend and grossed enough money to make you sick to your stomach if you watched the fight. The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby was another spectacle to behold. The NFL Draft made for good TV and the Atlanta Falcons seemingly put together one of the strongest drafts in the league. Game 7 of the Clippers-Spurs series was everything fans could have hoped for. The Braves hosted the Cincinnati Reds and on Sunday the Hawks welcomed the Wizards for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

From a local standpoint, there were some good moments and some bad moments for Atlanta teams. Let’s start with the positives. The Braves came away with a split in their four-game series with the Reds. Atlanta’s No. 3 ranked prospect Mike Foltynewicz made his first career start and helped the Braves win 4-3 with both his arm and bat. The 23-year-old who was acquired from the Houston Astros in the Evan Gattis deal, pitched five innings and allowed two earned runs. Foltynewicz settled down after a shaky 28-pitch first inning which saw two Reds cross the plate to gain an early lead. In the fourth inning, Foltynewicz stepped to the dish and delivered a two-run double to help spark the offense.

The Falcons had a well-liked draft and picked up some good value in the later rounds. Grady Jarrett is the son of former Falcon great Jessie Tuggle and will look to bring the same hardworking mindset his father had that made him a five-time Pro Bowler after going undrafted. The first round selection of Vic Beasley filled a glaring need for a pass rusher and gives Falcons fans an exciting player to look forward to seeing on Sundays.

One Atlanta team however, did lay an egg this weekend; your Atlanta Hawks. An energized team came out and held a 37-26 lead after the first period and looked as if they were ready to run the Wizards out of the building. Atlanta entered the half up 63-53, but the wheels would fall off. Bradley Beal took over the game and poured in a game-high 28 points to lead the Wizards to a 104-98 win. After struggling to close out Brooklyn in a timely fashion, Atlanta fans might be ready to hit the panic button after blowing Game 1.

On the national stage, the Kentucky Derby went chalk with the favorite, American Pharoah, pulling away down the stretch to hold off Firing Line. The pomp and circumstance was a sight to behold as the graceful power of the horses was on full display. American Pharoah will now attempt to be the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Game 7 of the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs was the most exciting event of the weekend hands down. A hobbled Chris Paul with just one hamstring willed the Clippers to victory and stunned the defending champs with a 111-109 victory. Paul finished with 27 points including the game-winner with one second remaining over Tim Duncan; a shot even the Russian Judges would give a 10-out-of-10 in difficulty. The incredible performance was meant to serve as the ultimate appetizer to the biggest boxing match in history, but the main course didn’t please everyone’s pallet.

Mayweather beat Pacquiao by decision in a match that most were let down by. Being an avid boxing fan year round, this was exactly what I thought would happen. The casual fan who thought there would be some sort of knockout got their hopes up for nothing. These two fighters aren’t guys who try to knock you out anymore. Mayweather is the greatest defensive fighter of all-time and always looks to hug and slither his way out of trouble. People can’t say the fight was a disappointment because this is what was expected going in. Pacquiao hadn’t scored a knockout since 2012 and Mayweather, 2011. The villain might have won the fight, but overall as sports fans, we won this weekend.

Saturday’s Sports Lineup One For the Ages

If you’re a sports fan, this Saturday is the type of day you live for. Clear your schedule, grab a cold drink, order a pizza and enjoy a plethora of sporting events to choose from.

The action begins at high noon with the NFL Draft kicking off. The draft has outdrawn NBA Game 7s in years past and will likely put up another big number in the Nielsen ratings this weekend. The Atlanta Falcons are holding a draft day party at the College Football Hall of Fame and will have attendees’ eyes glued to the big screen to see who Dan Quinn and company decide to bring aboard alongside No. 8 pick Vic Beasley. Rumors have swirled that the Falcons would be active during the draft and trade talks have floated around Bruce Irvin of the Seattle Seahawks as being a potential fit to rejoin coach Quinn in Atlanta.

Is football not for you? Well, maybe some hockey will whet your appetite. The New York Rangers host Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and will look to avenge a stunning Game 1 loss to the hands of the Washington Capitals. Hockey is understandably not big in the South, but one cannot argue the intensity and excitement the playoffs bring. The Rangers finished the regular season as the top team in the league and recorded their best season in franchise history. The visiting Capitals stole Game 1 with a game-winning Joel Ward goal with just two seconds remaining. New York failed to clear the puck out of the zone and Ward slipped a shot past Henrik Lundqvist to silence the home crowd.

At 4:00 P.M., live coverage of the 141st Kentucky Derby kicks off. “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” is a spectacle to behold at beautiful Churchill Downs. Fancy wardrobes, floppy hats, mint juleps and heavy gambling are all in abundance at the track. Celebrities and athletes both make it a point to attend the historical event. Last year, some drama occurred involving Denver Bronco receiver Wes Welker, who was shown making it rain $100 bills while at the track. Months later, it turned out Welker was under the influence of the drug Molly, and was subsequently suspended for four games after testing positive for amphetamines.

Last year’s on the track action featured California Chrome, who won the Derby and the Preakness Stakes before falling in the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome fell short of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Around 7:10 P.M., the Kentucky Derby will be wrapping up. At that time you will be able to switch over to the Braves-Reds game, or if you want, you could even make it to the game in person as it will be played in the friendly confines of Turner Field. Eric Stults will do battle with the ageless Jason Marquis. The Braves have held their own this season and have proven to be a competitive team.

Things start to get serious in primetime with the Los Angeles Clippers welcoming the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs for Game 7 of an epic first round playoff series at 8 P.M. There has been no momentum with both teams picking up wins on each other’s home court after suffering grueling losses to one another. Unsung heroes and three-point shooting have been the story. Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and most recently Marco Belinelli have all played the games of their lives as they have propelled the Spurs’ bench. Belinelli drained seven threes and finished with 23 points while Diaw scored 17 in Game 6, but somehow, the Clippers managed to stave off elimination and force a deciding Game 7 with a 102-96 win on Thursday. Four of the six games have been decided by 10 points or less and has given fans a Western Conference Finals worthy performance.

You can find great sports action on any given weekend, but the straw that stirs the drink and makes Saturday one of the greatest days in recent sports history is the legendary boxing bout featuring undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. The fight will likely start around 10 or 11 P.M. depending on how the undercard goes. The two most recognized figures in the sport finally meet after a decade of Mayweather dodging Pac Man. The fight will be the highest grossing pay-per-view of all-time, surpassing the mark set by Canelo Alvarez and Mayweather in 2013.

The fight is going for $90-$100 and will earn Mayweather up to $180 million just for taking the fight. Tickets to the fight did not go on sale until the week before and only 1,000 tickets were available to the public and sold out within 60 seconds. Tickets have gone for $40,000 upwards to $300,000. This fight is the most decorated match in over 30 years and will continue to put boxing on the map while the UFC has been on a steady decline. The UFC suffered a big blow with Light Heavyweight Champion and most popular fighter Jon Jones being stripped of his belt and facing a prison sentence.

Whatever event you choose to watch, you can’t go wrong. The marathon of sports will span nearly 12 hours and will give die-hard sports fans everything and more they could ever ask for in a day.

Al Skinner Soothes KSU Coaching Woes

The long awaited decision on who will be Kennesaw State’s new basketball coach was finally set in stone this Sunday. Vaughn Williams and company pulled a rabbit out of their collective hats with the hiring of Al Skinner. The 62-year-old Skinner is the perfect hire on paper for a program that has been one of the worst in the nation since 2010. The Owls needed a proven winner with experience leading young adults. For once in my life I can finally say, I think Kennesaw State got this one right.

Skinner is definitely no spring chicken, but what he does bring to the program is credibility. You can tell it by his look: A toothy smile, nearly bald, Skinner has been through some battles as both a player and coach and expects nothing but excellence. He was a standout at UMass as a player in the early 70s and was subsequently drafted by the Boston Celtics of the NBA, but instead decided to play in the ABA with the New York Nets and Hall of Famer Julius Erving. No knock on Jimmy Lallathin, but he wasn’t able to tell his players he went shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best players the game has ever seen. Skinner even has a shiny championship ring he won during his second professional season to get players’ attentions.

As a coach, Skinner started out as an assistant at Marist and Rhode Island before eventually taking over the head coaching job with the Rams in 1988. There he enjoyed a successful run in the A-10, amassing a respectable record of 138-126 in nine seasons. Skinner landed the Boston College job for the 1997-98 season and began a wildly successful run considering the juggernauts which resided in the Big East and eventually the ACC. In 13 seasons he ran up a record of 247-165 while collecting three Big East regular season championships and one tournament championship.

Kennesaw State, lowly little Kennesaw State, who has suffered through a 30-125 record over the past five seasons really just landed a one-time A-10 Coach of the Year, two-time Big East Coach of the Year and the 2001 National Coach of the Year?! Yes, you aren’t dreaming, that just happened. The Owls have won just 85 games during their 10 years as a Division One program; take a four-year stretch from 2003-04 to 2006-07 and Skinner won 98 games alone.

If players won’t buy in now that Skinner is at the helm, they will never buy in. He has sent the likes of Craig Smith, Sean Williams and Jared Dudley to the pros from Boston College. Not all-stars, but all serviceable NBA players that have played a handful of seasons in the association.

A Second Chance

Skinner was fired from Boston College on March 30, 2010. He has been working as an associate head coach at Bryant University, who much like Kennesaw State was years ago, is in its infancy as a Division One program transitioning full-time in 2012.

So what’s the knock on Skinner? I’m sure you could take a few guesses, but one major one is that he is old and won’t recruit the area like he should. It’s a decent argument, but I doubt that the former National Coach of the Year is leaving from the comforts of the Rhode Island area to come to Kennesaw just to collect a check and cash it in. Sometimes there is a thing called pride that can push old veterans to the peak of their game. Surely Skinner won’t want to end his career with a flop.

The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan highlighted a lazy Al Skinner back when he was fired from Boston College, stating he was too casual. However, in a Boston Globe article early last year, Providence Head Coach Ed Cooley said the fire is back.  “You could tell he missed it,” Cooley said. “He’s dying to coach again.” Cooley also added, “For Al Skinner not to be a head coach is a travesty to college basketball. It is crazy how he’s not a head coach somewhere.”

Time will tell if this hire was correct or not. If it is a homerun, Kennesaw can finally host a basketball program they are proud of; if not, the program will continue to remain in shambles.

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